The random thought: “What if my canoe could fly?” occurred to Dermot MacDougall as he was driving to school one day.
Eight months later, after much research, trial and error and invaluable support from his team members, the 20-year-old Red Deerian was elated to be gliding soundlessly in a canoe, some three feet above the water of Elk Lake on Vancouver Island.
“It was one of the best feelings in my life. It was really surreal, really neat. So much work had been put into it that it felt so amazing, being in the air,” he recalled.
Appropriately, MacDougall’s “very Canadian” flying red canoe, named the Millennium Phoenix, was designed and built in Canada. More specifically, it was the mechanical engineering technology student’s final class project at Victoria’s Camosun College.
MacDougall, who’s no stranger to oddball brainwaves — like turning his parent’s old barn into a country bar — had been pondering the mechanics of hydrofoils.
The process of putting vanes, or wing-like foils, under the hulls of watercraft to lift them out of the water and make them go faster had previously been applied to surfboards and yachts.
The recent graduate of St. Joseph High School wondered if something similar could be applied to an old, beat-up canoe he had recently bought off Facebook Marketplace for $75?
The more MacDougall thought about it, the more he liked the idea of challenging himself to discover an innovative way to make this happen as a year-end project for his program.
Although most of these “capstone” projects at Camosun College have originated from industry, the Red Deerian put in a rare application for a student-led project. It wasn’t easy getting it approved; “I had to propose it three times,” admitted MacDougall.
But he now realizes that being repeatedly sent back to the drawing board for more research was a huge boon for him and his team of four other students. Whenever things went wrong, they had a pretty good idea of what was needed to fix the glitches.
The first trial of the mechanized hydrofoil canoe, with two added engines, hand-controlled vanes and a foot-controlled front rudder, didn’t go as planned. While the front hull rose high out of the water, the rear section did not, recalled MacDougall.
The team had to make adjustments, including sanding down the forward vane to allow the main vane, under the pilot, to achieve more lift. They also added a “passive levelling system” — which looks like a smaller boat on a stick extending from the front of the craft — to make sure the canoe could glide over top larger waves.
MacDougall remembers feeling “really nervous” before the second trial, on the second last day of the semester. “I was eight months into it — it was four or five months for my team — and I really wanted it to work…”
As the canoe started picking up speed, he could feel the waves lapping against the boat. Suddenly all the shaking stopped and there was “dead silence…. it was a little bit spooky…”
He had achieved lift-off: “I could hear my team cheering from another boat and my professor saying ‘Dry hull!”
Flying above the lake was exhilarating, MacDougall recalled. “Saying it was the best feeling in the world doesn’t really explain it.”
He has since heard some industry interest in designing a marketable canoe that could be retrofitted for hydrofoil. He is also considering other opportunities, such as continuing his engineering studies at university, or getting his pilot’s license.
MacDougall knows he isn’t done with perfecting his flying canoe yet. “I’d like to tinker with it so it can fly easier and tweak some things.” He admitted he’s always been the kind of person who “can’t not know” how things work.